TGC Asks Matt Perman: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?

Note from Collin Hansen, TGC editorial director: This week we’re examining the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. We’ll hear from pastors, scholars, and researchers to work toward common understanding on this pressing, perennial dilemma. Next we turn to Matt Perman, senior director of strategy at Desiring God.

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A preacher has crossed the line into plagiarism in his sermon when he, intentionally or unintentionally, gives the impression that the original ideas or words of another are his own. The way to avoid this is to simply make sure and cite the source. This applies not only to quotes and lose paraphrases, but also original ideas and even sermon structure.

For example, one of the best messages I’ve ever heard is John Piper’s sermon “The Happiness of God: Foundation of Christian Hedonism.” In it, he first makes a case that God does all things for his own glory. Then he raises a problem: Is this selfish? And then he resolves the problem.

If you preach a sermon with that basic outline, even if you do all of it in your own words, you should still cite Piper’s original sermon.

Now, the issue is not always cut and dry. For example, Jonathan Edwards makes a compelling (and biblical) case that the goal of God in all things is his own glory. Edwards is perhaps the most detailed person to make that case. Yet he is stating a very common and pervasive biblical truth—and one which I believe for all sorts of reasons beyond and in addition to the arguments that Edwards makes. Do I need to refer to Edwards every time I say “God created all things for his glory”? That would be annoying. (Though of course that does not settle it!)

The answer is no, because Edwards is stating a truth that can be called “common knowledge.” Even though he is being very profound, thousands of theologians and Christians before (and after) Edwards have believed and argued the same thing. If you use any of Edwards’s specific arguments, then, you should cite him; but in simply stating the truth “God created all things for his glory,” you do not need to cite him or any other theologian. (But it would always be a great idea to cite some biblical texts!)

The Edwards example is probably too easy. Sometimes you might genuinely be uncertain. Here is, I think, the best way to deal with that ambiguity: Just be free about letting people know the sources of your ideas and where you have learned things. This doesn’t diminish your credibility at all, and in fact benefits your listeners and the church by letting people know about other helpful teachers and resources. And it gives them confidence that you are always learning from others, rather than a solo shop. Let your default be to tell your congregation what you are reading and where you have learned things.

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See also:

Pastoral Plagiarism Is an Integrity Issue

Read other responses from:

Don Carson

Sandy Willson

Tim Keller

Glenn Lucke

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  • Jason Kanz

    The challenge, of course, will be that in this era of increasing dissemination of data, ideas, etc brought about the era of the Internet, it will be genuinely difficult to find ideas that are truly novel. Unfortunately, despite what may perhaps be innocent intentions, pastors and writers may be accused of stealing ideas from others. How do we guard against this in the information age?

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  • Chuck Carroll

    I find it ironic that the argument against plagiarism uses a statement from Jonathon Edwards: “God has created all things for His glory.” The article’s focus is to make sure that you give the glory to another man. Let’s give the glory to God rather than men. Solomon said that there is nothing new under the sun.

    As for me, I have the spiritual gift of giving. I can only give what I receive. If I receive encouragement or instruction from a sermon, then I can give encouragement or instruction to others. If it is spiritual, then it comes from the Lord God who is the one worthy of all of the glory. I have not had occasion to read from Jonathon Edwards. I wonder if he cited all of the others who inspired him.

  • Bruce

    I’m not sure exactly where this fits in with the discussion. I’d like to hear what you all think about a pastor simply recycling his sermons to the same congregation. My pastor has been doing this on a regular basis for quite a while. I recently questioned him about it and he was indignant about it. Actually I think he was surprised that anyone noticed. The sermons that he’s recycling where originally preached around six years years ago. The composition of the congregation has been unchanged during that time span. I have soe opinions on this practice, but I’d like to hear from some others.

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  • Nate

    I find the example of Piper’s sermon to be weak. That outline is extremely simplistic, and is an outline I make for many sermons. State the thesis, address the common questions/misconceptions, answer/resolve the problem. I don’t think Piper originated that outline, and so if I preach a sermon on the glory of God and use that outline, I feel citing Piper is unnecessary. The author even said, “Even if you do it in your own words” which I find extremely difficult to accept. After all, there are only so many ways to outline the gospel. Do I need to cite all those who have followed a similar outline?

    I fear that this discussion is highlighting a question behind the question. Are we truly concerned with the integrity of the pastor, or are we more concerned with getting recognition for a good idea?

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  • Carey

    Here’s another take on it – it appears to me that there is a very unique tension between giving people credit and realizing that the truth of God’s word is GOD’s, not man’s. For example, teaching on Romans 6, a Pastor may PHRASE things in a fairly unique way to make an acrostic or outline that is more easily remembered or more impacting. But the truth he is communicating via that means comes directly from the passage! What if the way he PHRASED it is really the BEST WAY to phrase it for the sake of understanding, clarity, impact, etc. in our modern culture? Should we be so concerned that we cite him as the “source” when the basis for what we are saying (whether in his phrasing or something more “original” to us) is the truth of God’s word? The fact is that some words “fit” the meaning of a text better than others, for a variety of reasons. So if John Piper, or Wayne Grudem, or Matt Chandler, or whoever else uses those particular words “first” are the rest of us bound by conscience, law, or anything else to avoid the use of those words for fear of “stealing” from them? I find that very problematic…

  • Aaron Mize

    all preachers are plagiarists. we all preach the Word of God. so why give men more worth?